Paid to Lack a Sense of Humor

The Associated Press has an article on the wire about “leading religious scholars” discussing the Flying Spaghetti Monster. And in other news, the American Physical Society has decided to pay me to write about YouTube videos!

No, not really, but that’s about how silly this looks. I mean, you can get money for standing in front of a room o’ greybeards and showing them this picture?

The story itself is surprisingly sympathetic to the rationalist cause:

In the great tradition of satire, its humor was in fact a clever and effective argument.

Between the lines, the point of the letter was this: There’s no more scientific basis for intelligent design than there is for the idea an omniscient creature made of pasta created the universe. If intelligent design supporters could demand equal time in a science class, why not anyone else? The only reasonable solution is to put nothing into sciences classes but the best available science.

“I think we can all look forward to the time when these three theories are given equal time in our science classrooms across the country, and eventually the world; one third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence,” [Bobby] Henderson sarcastically concluded.

The story doesn’t jump the rails until it starts talking about what the theologians have to say:

Indeed, the tale of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and its followers cuts to the heart of the one of the thorniest questions in religious studies: What defines a religion? Does it require a genuine theological belief? Or simply a set of rituals and a community joining together as a way of signaling their cultural alliances to others?

Apparently, the learned scholars in the sacred halls of Academia, their brows wreathed in ivy, haven’t yet decided whether or not Star Trek fandom is a religion. Perhaps one day, soon, they’ll inform us whether the xkcd readership constitutes a cult.

OK, perhaps the story is oversimplifying. We’ve seen that happen enough times. But there’s more:

Lucas Johnston, the third Florida student, argues the Flying Spaghetti Monsterism exhibits at least some of the traits of a traditional religion — including, perhaps, that deep human need to feel like there’s something bigger than oneself out there.

Exqueese me?

One might make more progress as an intellectual if one spent at least a little effort trying to move beyond a myopic view of human nature. There’s another deeply human attribute which is far more relevant to understanding why people put FSM decals on their cars: a sense of humor.

He recognized the point when his neighbor, a militant atheist who sports a pro-Darwin bumper sticker on her car, tried recently to start her car on a dying battery.

As she turned the key, she murmured under her breath: “Come on Spaghetti Monster!”

By Apollo, ’tis most ignobly done to clep the godless “militant!”

Apparently, the atheist standard for militancy is lower than that for any religion you could name: to be a militant Muslim radical, I’d have to blow myself to bloody smithereens, but I get to be a militant atheist as soon as I buy a bumper sticker. Can I be a “militant gambler” if I hang a pair of fuzzy dice from my rear-view mirror? By this standard, every church that announces the upcoming Sunday sermon on the light-up board outside is a hotbed of militant Christianity.

Oh, and news flash: I can swear by a whole pantheon of deities in which I do not believe, and my exclamations do not reflect any vague spirituality, any desire to be part of something bigger than myself. Instead, they reflect that jump-starting a car can be a bitch and a half, and it’s better to laugh, even bitterly, than to get overly stressed about the situation.

In a trivial sense, I suppose, swearing by Poseidon’s beard or the two faces of Janus “connects” me with the community of other people who do the same thing, which I guess is something bigger than I am — but that’s a community spirit, not a cosmic one. Suppose that one night over dinner I exclaim, “taH pagh taHbe’.” This would “connect” me with the set of people geeky enough to have read Shakespeare in the original Klingon, but it’s not an appeal to divinity.

(Tip o’ the Militant Hat-Wearer’s Hat to Stacey the Skepchick.)

UPDATE (9 December): Welcome, Carnival of the Godless readers. If you’re starving for input, à la Johnny Five in Short Circuit, check out the “Reader Favorites” I have in the sidebar (randomly drawn from this list). There’s even a bit of fiction lying about, if that’s your speed.

20 thoughts on “Paid to Lack a Sense of Humor”

  1. Apparently, the atheist standard for militancy is lower than that for any religion you could name: to be a militant Muslim radical, I’d have to blow myself to bloody smithereens, but I get to be a militant atheist as soon as I buy a bumper sticker.

    That, sir, is a keeper!

  2. Yeah, the article just seemed interesting until the last quarter, especially the end note on the “God-Shaped Hole” argument(I’ll continue when the laughter stops…).

    The overall theme seems to remind me of a popular practice in modern apologetics, as well, namely that you’re “designed” (there’s that word again) to worship something, so if you’re not worshiping a deity you must be worshiping something else, worship of false idols leading to all your unhappiness. Indeed, it seems from the clues in the article that this is the way the talks are going to go, perhaps even invoking the erroneous notion of “believing” in evolution.

    Even beyond the points I just mentioned, such attempts by apologists and theologians to say that everyone has to believe in something irritate me because it results in a lot of evangelical nonsense, i.e. “They are believers, just in the wrong thing.” Ugh.

  3. I hear what you’re saying about the last quarter of the article. However, I interpreted it as an interesting question they were posing – not that they were drawing the conclusion that we use FSMism (or sports or Star Trek) to fill our “God shaped hole”. Overall, I thought the article fairly represented the ideas behind the FSM, even if they did pose controversial questions.

  4. See, I don’t even see it as an “interesting question.” It’s just another example of an intelligent thinker, horribly blinkered by nonsensical superstition. It’s a non-problem, an artifact of the theologian’s skewed perspective on human life.

    Suppose I tried to drive to a party, and the idle air intake on my car conked out again like it did last winter. Would anyone draw conclusions about my sexual practices if I exclaimed, “Fucking shit!”

    Again, I’m flummoxed to think this could be called, with a straight face, scholarship.

    Maybe I’m just unredeemably bitter (in addition to being an ill-tempered illiterate).

  5. lol…I don’t disagree with you, Blake. I definitely don’t think that all or most atheists that join tupperware groups are trying to fill the gap that godlessness has left in their lives. I do think, and always have thought, that religions fills a psychological need in some people. In fact, I think it’s blatantly obvious that this is the case. So I think it is valid to pose the question that some people may seek group affiliation to fill this human need. I don’t in any sense think it’s a need put there by a god.

  6. Stacey (the Skepchick, not the Blake), I don’t doubt that religion performs important social and psychological functions for many people; like you said, this is obviously the case. What I was irritated with was the idea that we were all created with a gap in our souls that can only be filled by God and we are all being called back to filling that through prayer meetings. What role religions plays in society and the mind of the individual is an interesting concept, but the feeling I got from the article is that it’s more about the “misplaced faith” of atheists, or at least that such a notion is a large part of the what’s being discussed.

  7. The real error of the theologians in question is that they fail to acknowledge that Flying Spaghetti Monsterism is a false religion. There is no monster but Linguine and roasted tomato with garlic is its sauce.

  8. Laelaps…thanks for clarifying. I agree with you 100%.

    Also, I’d like to clarify that the need that I’m talking about isn’t merely the need for affiliation, and could not be met by joining a tupperware or star trek fan group. Religion provides nice tidy answers to difficult questions like – why are we here? what happens when we die? what happens to bad people that get away with terrible things on earth? I believe that religion relieves the stress associated with these questions, and therefore fills a psychological need. In my opinion, atheists are courageous enough to base their beliefs (or lack thereof) based on the actual evidence, and bear the burden of the uncertainty and unfairness of life. And in that sense, I absolutely agree that speculating about atheists joining the ranks of FSMism as a way to meet these psychological needs is ridiculous. Definitely, if you get FSM at all, you know it is a combination of rationality and a sense of humor that motivates membership. The question itself posed, however, when directed at religion and cults, is valid (IMO).

  9. Yes, yes, religion can fill psychological needs (although it doesn’t always do so perfectly, else why would the existence of evil make so many people “question their faith,” even if they don’t abandon it?). What concerns me more is that the people who should be studying this carefully and figuring out just what those psychological needs are, how different beliefs satisfy them, and how we could maybe fulfill the same needs without filling the world with suicide bombers and creationists — those people, reputedly serious scholars, are completely mistaken about a very simple thing.

  10. Stacey the skepchick, I am not picking on you but I have never understood this need of courage by atheists for ‘bearing the burden of the uncertainty and unfairness of life’. Unless it takes courage to be true to oneself, though I don’t feel particularly courageous. However, conversely, I might well feel a sense of cowardice, or at least disappointment, if I wasn’t true to myself. For I have been an atheist since I started to genuinely think about all religion as a teenager some forty plus years ago and feel no burden in simply living my life. Even knowing that my three score years and ten, or however long it actually is, is all there is. Life itself more than fills any god sized hole I might have had, though I agree that it appears that many people do appear to have such a hole. I suppose it is just one more thing I don’t understand about the religious.

  11. John Phillips, I applaud you for being true to yourself, envy your effortlessness, and agree that it takes a measure of cowardice not to be true to yourself. I’m mainly an observer/processor of information, and I add a measure of introspection as well, but try not to let that overshadow the observation. What I observe is that many people don’t put enough thought into their faith to have a solid opinion to be true to. And they often don’t seem to consciously understand why they’re so defensive when their beliefs are challenged. I mean, it’s not like they’ve conducted research on all religions and objectively picked the “best” one for an actual reason. They were usually born into it and it’s shaped the way they view the world. That’s why they hold so tight to it (IMO) – because they’d have to change the way they function in many ways. One example from my own Chrisian upbringing – I was taught that when something terrible might happen (a hurricane, a disease, etc) that you relieve stress by praying, and having faith that whatever the outcome was, it was ordained by God and happened for a reason. Now, when a hurricane is spinning toward my house (and I am a homeowner on the FL coast), I have to accept that there is no one up there planning anything for a reason. Life is random and unfair in many ways. And that has been hard for me. So I can understand and sympathize those that feel it takes a little courage.

  12. Yes, the “courage” that Stacey refers to is, IMO, the courage to make the leap from a cozy world guarded by the skydaddy to a cold, harsh universe that doesn’t care whether you live or die.

    The god-shaped hole is not really a hole, it’s more like an umbrella that protects you from uncertainty. You can live without that umbrella, if you’re not afraid to get a little wet every once in a while.

    I think a lot of people are just really afraid of water. So much so that they don’t even realise it won’t kill you.

  13. Isn’t there a religious argument that runs roughly, “We can imagine God; therefore he must be real”? I think I’ve seen that. So then, what about the version of Michelangelo’s picture that shows Cthulu animating a squid-man? Is that real, too? Sheesh.

    People who spend their time fussing with their religion can’t imagine what non-religious people do – sort of like how smokers can’t imagine what non-smokers do with their hands. I think that’s the origin of the “god-shaped hole” rhetoric. Whatan awful idea! The dears probably think it’s unanswerable. I prefer, “A man without religion is like a fish without a bicycle.”

  14. I like an intelligent read, regardless if it bashes my faith or not. I have a sense of humor and see where your coming from. My whole perspective is that we don’t and probably never will know our creation. I’ve studies the scientific “explanations” hoping to find an answer I’ve been looking for only to realize that they left just as many loose ends as everything else. Most of what they explain is impossible to test and most of it is unexplainable even with science. The Bible is also written by men, men who have tried to control Europe through the Holy Roman Empire and whatever else before that. I can only believe their is a God because our solar system fell together too perfectly. Our atmosphere being just the right balance? Planet distance from the sun? I can tell you right now, no way in hell dust turned into a one-cell organism and sprouted DNA magically later.

  15. If I’m proven wrong about my faith, I’ll admit it. I, however, would love to have eternal rest and happiness. (Who doesn’t :P) Also, to that comment about why God doesn’t just stop everything? In the Bible ( there’s bound to be truth in there somewhere) it says he allows men to do what they wish, and doesn’t interfere. Praying doesn’t actually do anything, unless it relieves your stress or your a Christian and never opened the book. In conclusion, good read to the original post. Hope you all research everything before finally picking atheists, or whatever your want to be.

  16. Our atmosphere is itself the product of life: oxygen is produced by photosynthesis. Most of the “Goldilocks” properties of our situation — our planet is “just right” — are either the product of life or a circumstance to which life could adapt. The climate on Mars isn’t much worse than that of Antarctica, for example, and we know microbes can live in Antarctica (extremophile bacteria), so it’s really rather silly to say that our provincial patch of land is the only place “just right” for life.

    I don’t know what you mean when you say, “Most of what they explain is impossible to test and most of it is unexplainable even with science.” (This is an old claim, and false.) We can test evolutionary biology: we can predict that new genes will be found with certain properties, and lo and behold, often they are. We can say that based on what we know, an intermediate species had to exist which was the ancestor to these familiar species, and fossils of that ancestor should exist in rocks of a certain age in a certain location — and, boom, when we look, we find Tiktaalik.

    Your description of the scientific understanding of the origin of life is, I must say, an unfair caricature. First of all, even if we understood nothing about the origin of life, evolution would still be a viable explanation for the development of life since then, just as we can understand the American Revolution or the Civil War without having to know all the details about how writing was invented in ancient Sumeria or how the Egyptians built the pyramids. Second, nucleic acids arose before the first one-celled organisms, and neither DNA, RNA nor any other ingredients of biochemistry sprang from dust. Third, neither the origin of life nor the later unfolding of evolution is a process of blind chance: Nature builds complexity by saving what works and discarding what doesn’t. That’s natural selection.

    I recommend Robert Hazen’s book Genesis as an introduction to this active and exciting area of research.

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